Georgia ports planning big investments on coast to keep pace with unexpected growth

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SAVANNAH, Georgia — Georgia's coastal seaports plan $142 million in expansion and improvement projects in the next year to keep pace with faster than expected growth, the ports' chief executive said Thursday.

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, delivered his annual "State of the Ports" speech just two months after the agency reported record-smashing cargo volumes at both Savannah and Brunswick in fiscal 2015.

Buoyed in part by West Coast labor woes that diverted cargo to the eastern seaboard, Georgia's ports saw overall cargo volume jump 8 percent to 31.7 million tons during the fiscal year that ended June 30. The Port of Savannah, fourth in the nation for handling cargo containers used to ship retail goods, saw that business grow a whopping 17 percent as it moved 3.7 million container units.

"Those are container volumes we didn't expect to see until 2019, and we saw them last year," Foltz told about 1,500 gathered in a convention center ballroom for his speech.

Though some of the increased business that Georgia saw last year has returned to the West Coast, Foltz predicted more growth in the coming year. And he said the ports should be ready for the extra volumes.

In the next year, Savannah plans to add four new towering ship-to-shore cranes along its docks, boosting its total to 26. Other upcoming improvements include a new eight-lane access gate for trucks as well as a 30-acre depot yard for empty containers with enough space for 15,000 container units.

Foltz said the ports authority plans $1.4 billion in new investments over the next decade, anticipating more growth to come. Savannah's container business alone grew more than 9 percent between 2000 and 2014 — by far the fastest rate of any port in the nation.

Critical to future growth will be the $706 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel that began earlier this month. Ports along the East Coast are racing for deeper water to make room for supersized ships expected to begin arriving next year via an expanded Panama Canal.

Foltz said those giant ships, which are already transiting the Suez Canal, make up nearly a third of ships currently calling on the Port of Savannah. But at current depths they can't reach the port with full loads or at high tide.

Getting Washington to part with its $440 million share of the harbor expansion could be one of the project's greatest hurdles. Foltz estimated the project could run into delays if it fails to get $100 million in federal funding for the government fiscal year that starts in October 2016.

"The big ships are already here," Foltz said. "We've got to get this deepening project done, and done as soon as possible."

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